True Tavernauts

Gin Blossoms don’t fabricate their bar-happy bearing

Sure, his melancholy jangle-pop band is named after an alcohol-induced vascular condition, but Gin Blossoms lead guitarist and Phoenix resident Scott Johnson won’t change his habits. He grew up in bars, learned to play music for a living in bars. Bars are where he feels comfortable. It was that way even before he joined the biggest band to hail from Tempe’s beer-soaked college-rock scene of the ’90s.

“It was a small scene near the Arizona State University campus,” he recalls, in a phone interview. “We were all in our early 20s, and we all knew each other.”

Johnson and Gin Blossoms founder Jesse Valenzuela had attended rival high schools, attended the same parties in their teens and, years later, performed with their respective bands in the same smokey haunts.

Johnson got his break with the Blossoms the old-fashioned way: by being too lazy to move his gear.

“I was in another band that sublet the Blossoms’ practice space,” he says. “I was happy they grabbed from the scene. They could’ve gone with an L.A. hired gun.”

Johnson’s opportunity was based on another’s tragedy. He was asked to join after main songwriter, Doug Hopkins (“Hey Jealousy”), was booted out for alcoholism during the making of 1992’s New Miserable Experience.

“I was the first and only one to audition,” Johnson says. “I got the job the next day, but the guys made it plain: ‘If Doug sobers up, gets his life together, you’re out.’”

Hopkins later committed suicide, and in the aftermath, the band suffered low morale. (Bassist Bill Leen had been neighbors with Hopkins since childhood.) But the band soldiered on, and Experience went multi-platinum.

Johnson’s own songs didn’t appear until 1996’s Congratulations I’m Sorry. He co-wrote “Follow You Down,” which reached No. 15 on the Billboard charts. But it’d be a full decade until the Blossoms cut another album, Major Lodge Victory, which contains no Johnson originals.

“That’s how it goes for artists,” he shrugs. “Sometimes you get a break, often you don’t. The label selected the songs, mine were not among them.”

No Chocolate Cake, the band’s fifth full-length, was released late last year (and given three stars in our Oct. 7 issue). Although Johnson has no songwriting credits (the material is mostly composed by Valenzuela and the Rembrandts’ Danny Wilde), he enjoyed recording the leads and loves performing the songs live. When playing with the Blossoms, he shares his solo material in—where else?—bars. “There’s a dark side to hanging in those places,” he says. “But you often find creative sparks in the darkness.”

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